Setting can be tricky to get right. Too many details and you can bore the reader or stifle their imagination. Too little and the reader may form a false or unclear picture in their mind. And then you can get the amount of detail right, but end up with incorrect, implausible, or inconsistent details!
Macro-level and micro-level setting
I like to divide setting up into macro-level and micro-level features.
Imagine a kitchen in a regular suburban house with a hob, dishwasher, counters etc. Now, imagine the same kitchen as a room in a spaceship. Most of the micro-level details are the same. There’s the same bowl of fruit on the table, and the same instructions for using the oven. But if you look out the window, you see something completely different, and the macro-level (social, cultural, political) frame of reference is completely different too.
Macro-level features include the overarching frame of reference (e.g. the kitchen is on a space arc after Earth was rendered uninhabitable). Meanwhile, micro-features are about the little details (e.g. I’m holding a fork and have just applied a bottle of cosmic-ray sunscreen to my face).
Clearly, the macro-level and the micro-level join up, but it helps to consider them separately.
This post will focus on the micro-level.
3 common problems when creating immersive settings
Problem 1: Unclear setting
One extreme is unclear setting. Here, the setting barely features in the story and everything feels like is happening in an indistinct place, like on a cloud. The author may have forgotten to include a couple of sentences explaining where the action is happening – and this lack of information can create a blurry or mistaken picture in the reader’s mind.
Here’s one example I made up:
Ollie ran as fast as she could, but she couldn’t outpace the Pracian scouts. Her wheezing intensified as she inhaled the thick, musty air. Left or right? She dove to the right and continued, then paused briefly and hoped that her silence would conceal which path she had taken. One, two, three … the Pracian scouts reached the fork and went down the left passageway. Phew! She breathed a sigh of relief and then continued, moving deeper into the caves.
Here, we don’t find out enough information about the setting to build a picture in our minds until the end of the last sentence.
What image was in your mind when you started reading? I’m curious to see what imaginary setting you invented, so please drop your answer in the comments!
Very occasionally, unclear setting can be a desired effect, for example, if you are writing literary fiction and have a wider point you want to make.
How to resolve unclear setting
Unclear setting can usually be resolved with just a few extra details drip-fed to the reader. If you tell the reader the scene is taking place in a café, then the reader can already build a picture in their mind. A few more details may help. 'A dull chain coffeeshop with watery coffee' conjures a very different image to a 'chic Italian coffeeshop with whisky-barrel-aged, artisan coffee' – and the choice may tell us something about the protagonist's personality or mood too.
So short, jam-packed descriptions combined with objects (let’s call them ‘props’) shaken in will go far.
What do your characters eat and drink, what do they use for money, for clothes?
Certain props conjure up a setting or moment. And if they are vague (e.g. biscuits, crisps) then the reader won’t feel like they are in a different environment. This was one comment I received from my developmental editor – I created a storyworld set in Earth’s distant future, which included beverages and food items that would be common in a Western 2020s setting (e.g. herbal teas and lavender biscuits). Getting these markers of difference right is really important for science fiction especially!
If your story takes places in a fantasy world, I strongly suggest making a list of everyday props that are used in that world. If you don’t have this list, you are much more likely to fall back on your own 2020s experiences. This list will include:
Everyday items of clothing
Coins or currency used
Everyday items of food and drink
Ritual or symbolic items
These props don’t all have to advance the story; they can be used as ‘markers of difference’ that help create an immersive setting.
They are especially important in science fiction. With fantasy, especially epic fantasy, it is easy to drop into stereotypical props – e.g. bread and cheese, stew, gold and copper coins.
Problem 2: infodumps
At the other extreme, excessive descriptions of setting that don’t advance the plot can bore the reader. This could include five-page descriptions of the fora and fauna on a terraformed Mars.
Sure, this will excite the occasional reader, but if you want to write a popular book for a wide audience, most readers want the story to be advancing most if not all of the time. This approach to setting doesn’t sit well in commercial (genre) fiction especially, but long infodumps should be avoided anywhere – especially near the beginning of the novel as the reader is less invested in the story then.
How to resolve infodumps
Sprinkle the setting and worldbuilding details into the story. Rather than using exposition to reveal your world, be creative. If two characters encounter an object (e.g. cosmic-ray sunscreen) and have strongly different views about it, this can convey lots of worldbuilding information to the reader while also strengthening character voice and possibly advancing the plot (if those differences of opinion become relevant later on).
Problem 3: Implausible or inaccurate setting
Now for the third point in the triangle: settings that jar the reader because they are implausible (more common in SFF) or inaccurate (more common in historical/real-world fiction). Here, the amount of description is enough, but it’s offkey. This can be because it’s either implausible (e.g. a well-known household brand existing in the far-flung future) or because it’s factually incorrect (e.g. a house in 1990s New York costing a dollar).
In this case, the concepts, objects, or ideas don’t fit right – they feel like ‘matter out of place’, to use an anthropological phrase that Mary Douglas developed to refer to objects that don’t comfortably fit within a particular cosmology.
The key here is the concept of a credibility threshold, which MD Presley defines as:
Credibility Threshold: Where worldbuilding details must only appear plausible to a general audience rather than demonstrating expert-level knowledge.
Will most readers carry on reading, most of the time? If your novel is set in Macclesfield, UK and contains some inaccuracies about where the building in the town centre lie in relation to each other, all readers unfamiliar with the town will pass over these details.
How to resolve implausible or inaccurate setting
Do enough research to ensure you pass the credibility threshold, but don’t worry so much about getting every details right that you end up infodumping or unable to write.
A little bit of research goes a long way! Recently, I edited a Western and that got me checking:
How much did things cost in 1876?
Did people eat goat cheese in the American West?
Would a sheriff likely smoke cigarettes?
How far can a horse ride in a typical day?
As an editor, internet search engines are your friend here. But authors may well go the extra mile and visit sites such as in situ museums where they can learn more about a particular setting. For historical fiction, this kind of fact checking is really important.
Why do some authors find it difficult to create immersive settings?
Sometimes, a writer has a clear vision in their head of what is happening in a scene, but getting it down on paper is a different matter. It’s easy to make mistakes with our own imagined settings because we are so used to them, and we don’t always see our own flaws and weaknesses.
Also, backdrops in fantasy and science fiction worlds are often based on pieces of imagination built up of real-world locations.
For example, I imagined certain locations at this fort when I was writing early scenes in my novel, set in the distant future.
These backdrops and the imagined props are overlaid.
This is how fantasy worlds are captured on video too, as this awesome documentary shows.
In short, you want to create a storyworld where the setting is plausible (or realistic) within the parameters of the story, and where those details are sprinkled in (rather than being absent or overly present).
Plausibility and accuracy are about the qualities of the setting and worldbuilding details provided, while unclear setting and infodumps are about getting the quantity right and feeding them to the reader in an appropriate way.
What problems with setting do you encounter most often? Let me know in the comments!
If you want to learn more about setting and worldbuilding, I can highly recommend:
My forthcoming mini-course: Cultural Worldbuilding in Your SFF Novel
Andrew Hodges, PhD is a line editor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!